Blackface Caricatures Bigger Than Ralph Northam
I was born at the midway point of the 20th century, around 10 in the morning in the middle of October. The day before my birth a white medical physician had driven out to the family farm. He placed my mom in the backseat of his car, lest any of the good white folk in town started a rumor that he was driving around rural Georgia with a Black woman seated next to him during the height of southern segregation. So, you will know, I was born under the curse of Plessy.
The doctor drove her to the hospital in the next county to deliver me. I was one of the first Black babies to be birthed in this hospital. Most babies in this community were born at home with the aid of a midwife. My father paid the doctor and hospital expenses up front waiting on the day that I would get impatient in the bliss of all “that there is before birth” and nudge mom that it was time for me to see the light of day.
My father did not have an automobile. He did not feel that he could safely and comfortably drive my mom and me to the hospital in the mule-drawn wagon that doubled as farm equipment and our public conveyance for trips into town. So, the doctor came out to the farm and transported my mom to the hospital. His choices were few. He either drove us to the hospital in his car for my entrance into the world or he would lose his fee, which was paid in money and not in chickens, hams or peach preserves. All of which were customary forms of payment in the country for medical services in the middle of the last century.
Learning about this story of my birth, I have often wondered about the social mores in existence in the days leading up to my first breath. It seemed incongruous that a medical doctor could have the heart to drive a young Black woman in labor to the hospital yet be mindful of what white people in the community would think if she was seen seated on the front bench seat of his car with him.
To complicate this dichotomy, I would grow up, become an attorney and sue this doctor on behalf of a young Black woman. The lawsuit resulted when the doctor elected to watch the Georgia Bulldogs complete their march down the football field towards victory on a Saturday afternoon in the 1980s rather than drive over to the hospital to see about his patient, a welfare mother of three children, who had presented in the emergency room in labor and with a fetus in distress. Had his patient been a white woman would the doctor have put down his high ball glass without delay and rushed to the hospital? We will never know. What we know is he testified that he did not on this occasion.
The Bulldogs won that game, but this baby was “stillborn,” under the blessings of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.
Before BlackLivesMatter was a political slogan in the African American lexicon, as potent as “Black Power” was in an earlier time, I had fought to make BlackLivesMatter, not a slogan, but a call to justice and was able to hold the nurses and the hospital accountable for their negligence, this doctor, however, escaped all responsibility. Practically everyone in the courtroom, save experts that I flew in from California; an obstetrician from Los Angeles, and a forensic economist from San Francisco, had either been birthed by the doctor or their children were delivered by him. He was well known in the community, which made him verdict proof.
We later learned from the jury forewoman that we would have won against all the parties, but the majority white jury balked at giving millions of dollars in compensation to a “welfare mother” who lived in their community. The rule of law and the juror’s oath be damned, race trumped everything at that courthouse in rural Georgia. This equation is played out in courthouses, corporate boardrooms, schools, legislative bodies, and private clubs across America.
Why are blackface and Klan costumes important to white people?
As Gill Scott-Heron muses in The Ghetto Code: “Damn if I know.”
In a world built on the myth of white superiority, only white people can understand the need to wear costumes depicting stereotypes of Black people in blackface and displaying the violent caricatures of those who sought to keep Black lives in a perpetual state of fake inferiority.
Ralph Northam probably knows these dual archetypes of southern American folklore far too well. Black people shudder to ponder the number of their good white friends who harbor in their hearts so-called humor designed to denigrate blacks, to lessen their humanity and their place in the world we all inhabit.
It comes then as no surprise, that a medical doctor in Virginia or any other state in the union, would find a need to don the garb of a Klansman or a Negro caricature as part of how he wanted to be remembered by medical school classmates. It points up the cultural insecurities white people have living in society alongside Blacks, who were enslaved or discriminated against by white culture for the past 400 years.
What is problematical about Northam acting out his racist belief in his medical school yearbook, which he now avers is not him, is that Black people spent enormous political capital a little over a year ago to ensure that a Democrat became governor of Virginia. Let’s be clear, but for Black voters, Northam would not be the governor. He would have lost a close race and the Democrats would hold one less statehouse. Despite Bernie Sanders sounding an alarm about brother Northam, which was ignored by Black voters, Northam won while hiding the white supremacist ethos he harbored in his heart. A heart, perhaps, unlike the heart of any Democratic segregationist governor in Virginia’s past.
At the conclusion of the litigation mentioned above, I disclosed to the white attorney representing the doctor that I had been delivered by this doctor, and he quipped to me: “Even good doctors make mistakes.”
I was perturbed. My face blatantly showed how pissed-off I was at this court jester. After all the world was destined to hear my voice speak out against injustice and inequality in the American legal system. His thoughts did not give way to a life born with a purpose, but to the prospect that yet another threat to white supremacy could have been extinguished quietly without a whimper or outrage. This lawyer found it amusing that had the doctor failed to attend to my mother during her delivery of me, I would not have seen the light of day. One less arrogant uppity Negro to worry about keeping in his place.
Oh, how funny the thought of that probability must have seemed to him.
How irritating and troubling it cut into the marrow of my bones as I sat within inches of his next breath.
He tried to laugh-off his callous comment. In his white world view, he saw nothing wrong with his comment. His meaning was clear. Simply put, had the good doctor made a similar mistake in the middle of the 20th century, he would have saved himself a lot of future trouble. I was not amused and lit into my colleague at the bar like a bloodhound on a cornered jackrabbit. He was apologetic and could not understand my anger. I was somewhat forgiving, but I could not understand his insensitivity nor his humor.
This is the crux of the racial divide as we approach the roaring 2020s. White people did not get the memo back in 1955, Brown stood for more than making white supremacy obsolete under the law. It stands for the natural law principle that all people are endowed by their creator to be free spirits and are entitled to respect and all the freedoms enjoyed by all creatures, “great and small.”
The Quest of the 21st Century
The sooner white people stop being white the sooner the racial divide will dissolve into the nothingness from whence it came. This is the quest of the 21st century: White people must stop being white.
Achieving this quest will solve the problem of race which plagued the 20th century and caused that bard of American letters, W.E. B. DuBois, to posit: “The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line, the relation of the lighter race of men to darker men in Asia, Africa and the islands of the seas.”
The actions of the world of the 20th century did not solve this problem. It was thought that education of the Negro coupled with laws and their enforcement would solve this equation. But they have not yielded the answer. DuBois’ postulation has been carried into this millennium. The answer, like all answers, is simple once the formula has been identified. Antics like those of the MAGA Kids from Kentucky and those of a bright doctor turned politician in the Commonwealth of Washington, Jefferson, and Lee can be summed up by subtracting whiteness from whiteness. As the prosperity preacher Rev. Ike taught us in the 1960s, “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing.”
It goes without saying, Northam should sincerely apologize and resign. After a period of rehabilitation, Democrats should give him an opportunity to serve in public office again. That is if he stops the subterfuge about whether it is or is not him in the yearbook photo.
Resign, he must, but Northam is not the problem. The problem lurks in the murky still waters of a white American ethos that values whiteness over any other color.
I have news for my white friends. Losing your whiteness is not the end of the world. Losing your whiteness is liberating. It is a feeling out of this world. Give it a try and you will thank me for it later.
All that is needed to close the racial divide is for white people to stop being white. It can be done before this century is complete if whites but try. White superiority does not want you, but it needs you, my friend. White superiority cannot live without white people willing to give privilege to skin color. All you must do to let white superiority go is let it go. Your skin will still be white but will not have more value or less value than any skin color on the planet.
Meanwhile, we will wait for the next Northam to have the sheet pulled off them. It could be your next-door neighbor, your office mate or the CEO of your employer. It could be you. We just won’t know until the great reveal.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine, Medium, and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org